Concern grows over exploding e-cigarettes after 5 hospitalized in Seattle

by: Dave Wagner Updated:


SEATTLE - In the growing cloud of vapor, there are troubling new questions about the safety of electronic cigarettes. 

An explosion over the weekend involving an e-cigarette has doctors at Harborview Medical Center concerned. 

Since October, trauma doctors in Seattle have treated severe facial burns and blast injuries to hands of five patients.

The latest injury occurred this past weekend, when a young man nearly lost a finger.

"It can become like a high-powered rocket,” said Dr. Elisha Brownson, a trauma and burn fellow at Harborview.

Though e-cigarettes are often billed as a “healthier” alternative to tobacco, doctors across the country are seeing traumatic injuries from the devices exploding. 

Four men and one woman, all between 20 and 25, told doctors at Harborview they either had an e-cigarette up to their mouths or in their pockets the cigarette exploded.

"All of our patients have said they had little to no warning before these explosions occurred," said Dr. Brownson. 

Most of the patients suffered second-degree burns.

"The injuries that we're seeing combine both flame burns as well as soft-tissue blast injuries. Because of the explosion, we're seeing a large amount of blast injuries to teeth, to tissue in their hands and in their faces," said Dr. Brownson.

Those who “vape” say people, not the product, are most likely to blame. 

“Absolutely 100-percent operator error,” said Connor McGee, who works at a Pioneer Square e-cigarette store. 

In order to create a bigger cloud of vapor, some users choose to smoke unregulated devices. 

Those devices don’t automatically shut off when the lithium-ion batteries get too low.

"The battery is working too hard, for the most part, and when it vents, it's basically an explosion without the shrapnel," said e-cig store manager Erik Hartzog.

In some cases, Hartzog also blames cheap products bought online. 


"They're not machined to the same quality. So it can cause certain issues, like batteries exploding, things like that." 

After five months of seeing badly burned and disfigured patients, doctors at Harborview would like to see more regulation.

"I think that this is something that we thought was a rare occurrence and now we're seeing it more prevalent,” said Dr. Brownson.

Those in the e-cigarette industry emphasize that injuries are rare when you consider the vast number of people vaping.

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